John Paul Stevens

I write a second time to note the death of Justice John Paul Stevens. I withdrew the first, this morning, because, almost as soon as I published it, details came back to me that I thought I had forgotten.

My first stab at it.

As noted by Prof. Friedman and five scholars whose work he links at Religion Clause, Justice Stevens was a big fan of our fabled church-state separation, so he caught my motivated attention.

What I can add as a particular sort Christian believer is that Stevens’ reasoning in his opinions did not seem remotely to apprehend what it means to be integrally religious — religious in a way that become part of one’s very identity. His lamentable judicial characterizations of religion frequently struck me as tone-deaf and micro-aggressive. It was as if religion were a hobby like bridge or golf, but markedly less intelligent and quite unworthy of the Right People.

What later came to me was a more detailed account of wherein his view of religion went awry.

Justice Stevens seemed to view religion more or less as LARPing: religious people are in a role-playing game in which a putative (if not punitive) god, our gamemaster, has set the rules, some of which are quite arbitrary. They are, however, The Rules, and some people really, really get into the game, and think that they will suffer terribly through eternity if they break those rules (Don’t ask too many questions. Just believe.). For some reason, probably related to how deadly serious some people are about it, our Founders privileged religious LARPing in the First Amendment.

Integral Christianity (I can’t speak for any other religion, and can speak only second-hand of LARP Christianity), in contrast, thinks that the “one God … almighty, creator of … all things visible and invisible,” has created and invited us into a reality, parts of which we cannot see or conclusively prove. Our loving God has not laid down arbitrary rules for slavish observance, but relates to us lovingly in ways variously analogized to marriage, adoption — even “partaking of the divine nature.”

Integrally Christian people, in short, think they are the true “reality-based community.” They realize that not everybody can perceive the reality. They realize that some (like me) have had no visions or ecstasies or direct revelations and are operating, more or less, on faith — having seen just enough to make faith itself reasonable.

In Justice Stephens’ defense, there’s a depressingly large proportion of LARPers among self-identified religious people. I’ve fulminated about it before, under the rubric of Nominalism versus Realism, and Realism is foundational to Natural Law thought as well.

I don’t think I had acquired even a rudimentary vocabulary of Nominalism versus Realism when Justice Stevens was alive and writing, but I knew that how he described religiosity rang false to how I lived it. He’s entitled to his own opinion, but he’s not entitled to his own facts.

I have never, as best I can recall, read or heard anyone else remark on the oddity of Justice Stevens’ characterizations of what it means to be religious, on the Nominalism he assumed, over against Realism. I never even heard, as best I can recall, anyone else remark on his strange compulsion to provide a gratuitous metanarrative of “religion,” a term so diverse that angels fear to define it.

I consider that academic silence a bad omen for religious liberty cases in the future, for Justice Stevens’ metanarrative of religion would surely subordinate it just about any “right” rooted in something deemed essential, not accidental.

I was happy when Justice Stevens retired, but I cannot allow myself to be happy about anyone’s death. That’s less because my faith commands me against it than because the way reality works is that grudges that deep would deface my soul.

I doubt that he’d have understood that distinction.

R.I.P. anyway.


As if it weren’t enough to write this, then pull it down and re-write, I now cite with delight a better description of integral/classical Christianity from Fr. Stephen Freeman, as well as my commentary on it as a supplement to this blog entry.

* * * * *

You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).